How Automatic Call Handing Affects User Experience

We all know that an interactive voice response (IVR system) can greatly increase an enterprise's efficiency when handling customer service inquiries or sales calls, due to the greater speed with which a large number of calls can be fielded. We've also all heard the routine complaints by many about systems which are not user-friendly – these can tar the better IVR systems with the same brush. Now, a ground-breaking new study has examined the voices used in such automated systems to point the way towards improving the end user's experience.

The problem lies with implementation, not conception

The study has been carried out by a team from Rice University in Houston, Texas. They wanted to examine the effect that gender and tone can have on an IVR system user's reaction to the call – particularly users that have felt frustrated by such systems in the past. One of their most important conclusions for anyone designing or utilising IVR is that "much of this frustration stems from poorly designed IVRs, not from the form of interface being intrinsically 'bad'.”

Taking the right tone

The key findings of the study by Rochelle Edwards and Philip Kortum, however, was that the gender of the voice used in IVR systems, plus the tone adopted by this voice, were highly influential when it came to a users' experience. The study examined volunteers' reactions to a system collating health information, where they were asked to rate male and female voices speaking in a variety of different tones – such as briskly professional, cheery or sympathetic. Interestingly, while the male voice was often seen as more user-friendly, it was usually considered to be less trustworthy than its female equivalent.

The human touch wins every time

Kortum stressed that in all cases studied thus far, real human voices have trounced computer-generated ones across the board, so it was now time to fine-tune the human voices used to further improve the caller experience. “This research shows that some simple modifications to the design of these systems can have an impact on the usability of voice interfaces," he said. The Rice University study is to be formally presented at this month's Human Factors and Ergonomics Society annual meeting in Boston.